Since the early days of the pandemic, the Bay Area has been seen as a model for how to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
The region instated the nation’s first stay-at-home orders in March 2020, and has since consistently seen lower levels of transmission than its southern counterparts. Today, the Bay Area has one of the country’s lowest Covid-19 death rates.
But over the past few weeks, the region has been getting a different, and less welcome, kind of pandemic attention.
The Bay Area has emerged as the state’s latest Covid hot spot, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among California’s 58 counties, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda currently have the highest rates of Covid transmission, according to The New York Times tracker.
On Friday, health officers from 11 counties in and around the Bay Area warned of a new swell of cases fueled by highly contagious Omicron subvariants.
Though a mask requirement for BART was reinstated late last month, the health officers aren’t reinstalling additional mandates, relying instead on recommendations that people use rapid tests, get boosters when eligible and start keeping masks handy again.
“If you’ve chosen not to wear a mask in indoor public places recently, now is a good time to start again,” Dr. George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County’s public health department, said in a statement on Friday.
As the first Omicron wave receded in early spring, Covid restrictions were lifted across California and much of the nation. That means many Americans are increasingly in situations where they could contract the virus, whether eating indoors or going unmasked on airplanes.
New coronavirus cases have more than tripled since April 1 across the United States — and in California specifically. The Bay Area’s rates have climbed faster, but remain roughly in line with what’s being seen elsewhere, said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of medicine at University of California, San Francisco.
“It’s not a night and day difference. What’s surprising though is that the Bay Area has been such an overperformer throughout the pandemic,” Wachter told me. “We’ve sort of gotten used to being the poster children for doing well.”
Wachter knows more people who’ve contracted Covid in the past few weeks than ever before, he said, including his wife. He offered a few theories on the Bay Area’s newfound position.
The San Francisco area has a high fraction of residents who have been able to work from home for the past two years, so they may have been able to avoid the virus until recently dropping their guard amid loosened pandemic rules. “For the first time in two years, you see a lot of people without masks,” Wachter said.
And though the region has high vaccination rates, the shots’ ability to prevent people from getting infected wanes over time, so they may not confer the same protection they once did. Plus, the Bay may be particularly vulnerable simply because of how many residents have never contracted the virus before, he added.
“In the face of a very, very infectious variant, the fact that you did well in the past is a little bit of a risk factor for more people getting infected now,” Wachter said.
Hospitalizations have increased slightly in the Bay Area, but far less than during previous surges, most likely because vaccines provide such strong protection against severe disease. In Los Angeles County, where cases have increased 56 percent over the past two weeks, the number of patients hospitalized with Covid remains flat.
Health officials warn that reported case numbers are probably a severe undercount, as at-home rapid tests are not included in the data. But the figures still provide a snapshot of the latest trends.
At U.C. San Francisco, surgery patients without Covid symptoms are swabbed for the virus as a precaution. About 5 percent of those patients are testing positive, which suggests that roughly one in 20 people in the Bay Area who feel fine are infectious with Covid, Wachter said.
“The bottom line is that there’s a lot of Covid around, and if you have let your guard down, there’s a decent chance you’re going to get it,” he said.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Amy Patrick, who lives in Napa:
“When it gets too hot, I look to Sonoma County for relief. I pack up the dogs and we’re at a pet-friendly beach on the Sonoma coast in an hour, enjoying the 30 degree drop in temperature. We’ll stop for oysters along Tomales Bay then taste our way through Sonoma’s Wine Country on the way home. The microclimates, hills and sea, food and wine — it’s why we’re in California.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What do you want to know about California’s June primary election? Email us your questions at CAToday@nytimes.com.
And before you go, some good news
On May 7, Kai Neukermans went to a Pearl Jam show at the Forum in Inglewood. Neukermans, an 18-year-old from Mill Valley, drums in his own band, which has performed at a number of festivals.
Less than a week after the concert, Neukermans found himself playing onstage with Pearl Jam at the Oakland Arena.
“It was surreal,” Neukermans told SFGate. “The arena lit up and everyone was screaming.”
Read how it happened on SFGate.